It was the summer of 2007. This was five years before Strayed would achieve incredible success. In 2012, Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail spent seven consecutive weeks as number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Oprah Winfrey selected Wild to launch Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Strayed’s third book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, was published four months after Wild, and also became a New York Times bestseller. Reese Witherspoon announced her plan to turn Wild into a movie.
“You are a god.” This was seven years before the movie was released—rolling out in cities across the US this month.
I had just finished reading Strayed’s two memoir shorts that had been selected for Best American Essays, published by Mariner Books. “Heroin/e,” from the 2000 edition narrates her descent into despair and heroin use as a young woman after her mother’s death from cancer. “The Love of My Life,” from the 2003 edition, describes how her grief at losing her mother turned her away from her loving first husband to sexual encounters with numerous strangers.
An excerpt about her heroin-addict boyfriend from “Heroin/e” conveys the intensity, courage, insight, and originality of Strayed’s prose. “What I loved about Joe is that he didn’t love me, or himself. I loved that he would not only let me but help me destroy myself. I’d never shared that with another person. The dark glory of our united self-destruction had the force of something like love. I get to do this, I thought. I felt a terrible power within me. The power of controlling the uncontrollable.”
Since attending a reading by Strayed in June, 2007, I had read Torch (her novel published the year before), and had begun meeting with her as my personal writing teacher. What I’d literally asked her after hearing her read that first time was, “Will you mentor me as a writer?” I’d never imagined I would seek a writing mentor before, and our family didn’t have anything like this in our budget. The concept seemed ludicrous to me, and self-indulgent. Yet I sensed in Strayed strengths I needed, and mentorship is what I sought from her, not merely editing. She smiled, said she had friends who did this sort of thing, and said she would ask them what they charge so we could work something out.
We began working together soon after. I sent her short stories I’d written, she edited them, and we met in her living room for several sessions lasting a couple hours each. “Your transitions are terrible,” she said to me once. I was surprised by how blunt this nice woman could be. No doubt the surprise showed on my face. In response, she leaned forward and repeated, “They’re terrible.”
She taught me how to improve my transitions. She helped me move beyond “show, don’t tell” basics to understand that sometimes expository text can be useful. And more. It was always evident she earnestly wanted me to achieve my writing goals.
Our consultations went well beyond her dispensing her valuable writing advice. At the time, I was struggling to emerge from an extremely stressful period of my life, and I found her curiosity about my complex life genuine, and her focused and compassionate attention uplifting and healing. She was a wonderful role model for me, not just as a writer, but also as a person. Self-confident. Gracious. Dedicated to the rigor the writing profession demands.
As we sat together on her sofa, we talked about my stories, being a writer, family life, and our pasts. She manifested spiritual depth, with an awareness of what is truly important in life, basing her actions on what I consider to be the highest values. Combined with this, she was not only warm and accessible, but fun, profane, and entertaining.
I loved our conversations, and found her opinions and advice wise, her integrity solid, her generosity abundant, and her valor inspiring. Our sessions were one part writing consultation, one part a growing friendship, and one part a healing retreat for me.
Her writing stunned me with its candor and clarity. She strove to be her best self at all times, especially in service to others. The more I knew her, the more she seemed to me to be one of the giant souls who walk our earth. All this led me to tell her, “You are a god.”She and her husband—Brian Lindstrom, a gifted and uncompromising independent filmmaker—were raising two young children. Given Strayed’s limited hours a week to earn an income, and my modest payments, the sessions came to an end. We stayed in touch. In 2010, she offered editing services through the Willamette Writers Conference, and I took that opportunity to have her review the synopsis and first twenty pages of my novel-in-progress; her insights were again valuable.
Spoiler alert—though I don’t feel it spoils the novel at all. The last five words of Torch reveal notable qualities of Strayed’s: “…be incredible. Like most people.” Though many people consider her to be the incredible one, she is humble, and appreciates the worth and potential in the common person. She uses the word “most” because she recognizes the difference between people who are trying hard and those who are content to exploit or hurt others. She is a teacher, a counselor, and a healer, so she chose to end the novel supporting and encouraging her readers on our individual and shared paths forward.
So be incredible. Like Cheryl Strayed.